Maharashtra’s children shouldn’t lose hot cooked meals to ready-to-cook premixes
The flip-flops in India’s child nutrition policies are nowhere better exemplified than in the recent decision of the Maharashtra government to tender, for a five-year period, the supply of fortified ready-to-cook premixes to feed children aged 3-6 years at rural anganwadis in the state. What does this imply for the supplementary Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) nutrition programme and what are its other likely ramifications?
Quality and quantity of food supply are the issues of primary concern. It is difficult to take at face value the tender stipulations that quality checks will be carried out by the supplier organisations at their in-house laboratories. Nor can one take comfort from the provision for quality checks at independent laboratories ordered by the ICDS commissioner. In any case, public laboratories in India are notorious for delays in furnishing reports, enabling defaulters to get away. There is also the issue of whether the premixes supplied to children will be as nutritious as hot cooked meals, apart from the question of palatability. With a provision of only ₹6 per child per day, there can be a very real apprehension that the suppliers will be tempted to compromise on quality to maintain their profit margins. There could also be a temptation to supply less quantities to anganwadis and divert supplies to the open market, as has been observed in recent studies of the ICDS nutrition programme in Uttar Pradesh.
The concerns about poor programme delivery are amplified by the top-down approach adopted, with the pre-mix being distributed directly from the project to the anganwadi. There are no provisions for social accountability through monitoring of supplies and service delivery by village level institutions, ranging from gram panchayats to mothers’ groups.
Although the tender document specifies that only women self-help groups, mahila mandals, mahila sansthas and village communities are eligible to bid, the onerous conditions regarding turnover, manufacturing and in-house food testing facilities rule out any small group being successful. Maharashtra has a past of private contractors acting as fronts for women’s groups and there is no reason why history should not repeat itself. Moreover, the concentration of production in one or a few organisations denies economic benefits to a very large number of rural women’s groups that earn their daily bread through the preparation of meals for children.
Ultimately, the issue boils down to whether massive government funds should be channelised to a select few organisations. Neither the ends of efficiency (given the scope for possible quality and quantity aberrations) nor those of equity (concentration of supply in a few hands) or empowerment (no role for participation of local governments and communities) are being met, with questions arising regarding the possible violation of the repeated directions of the Supreme Court over the past 13 years. Does such a policy behove a land that is the karmabhumi of the visionary king Shahu Maharaj, social activist Jyotiba Phule and economist-reformer Babasaheb Ambedkar?
Venkatesan Ramani is former director general of the Maharashtra State Nutrition Mission.
The views expressed are personal
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